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How Childhood Emotional Abuse Affects Brain Development


Did you experience emotional abuse or neglect as a child? According to studies, approximately 14% of Americans experienced some form of emotional abuse when they were young. The abuse most likely caused physiological changes to your brain that can cause life-altering symptoms into your adulthood. This is because as a child, your brain is still developing, and the abuse doesn’t allow the development to happen along its usual course. These changes that occur can happen in several different structures of the brain and the extent of damage can vary widely, dependent upon the age at which you were abused, and the length of time the abuse occurred. Some problems that can occur include mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders, or physical illness such as chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and IBS.


What are Emotional Abuse and Neglect?

Emotional abuse is when your emotional needs of belonging and love are not met. It can include things such as name calling, excessive yelling, insulting, threatening behavior, rejection, withholding love, criticism, or withholding support. Emotional abuse causes harm to your self-esteem and a lowered sense of self-worth. It can leave you feeling powerless and helpless.


Neglect on the other hand is when a caregiver doesn’t fill the child’s basic physical needs. This includes things such as a safe place to live, adequate food, heat and electricity in the home, adequate clothing, medical care, or appropriate supervision.


One might think that emotional abuse isn’t as bad as physical. I mean, the person wasn’t really hurt, right? But studies have shown that emotional abuse (and neglect) can have the same long-term effects that physical or sexual abuse have. Studies are looking into how abuse, specifically emotional abuse for the purposes of this blog, affects the structures of the brain.


What Structures of the Brain are Affected?

Studies using MRI imaging have discovered that several different brain structures can be affected. Of course, this is dependent upon several different factors including at what age(s) the child was abused and the length of time they were abused. These structures can include the corpus callosum, hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, amygdala, and the cerebellum. Changes in these areas can affect motor performance, coordination, sensory processing, learning, memory, stress response, emotional regulation, and perception.


Possible Long-term effects

As you can imagine, these types of brain changes can potentially have long-term effects on you. I’ve listed some of these possible outcomes below:


  • Learning difficulties

  • Hypervigilance- constantly being on alert for danger

  • Feeling fearful and anxious

  • Finding social situations difficult to navigate

  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships

  • Developmental milestones delayed

  • Decreased ability to process positive feedback

  • Emotional dysregulation

  • Impaired empathy towards others

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  • Decreased self-awareness

  • Low self-esteem

  • Difficulty coping with stressors





Will It Effect Me Forever?

With these types of physical brain changes and the number of potential effects from them, the risk of problems well into adulthood is there. However, treatment can help to mitigate these effects and can help you to live a healthy, happy life. Treatment often includes therapy as well as medications to address the mood and/or cognitive symptoms. Therapies can include learning ways to cope with emotions, stress management, exposure therapy, CBT for trauma, and methods to calm the amygdala such as meditation, deep breathing, tapping, EMDR, etc.


Closing Thoughts

If you would like more information on trauma treatment, please click on the link! I'd love to talk with you about starting therapy today!

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